Beating back malaria. Dignitaries, heads of state, and celebrities, including U2 singer Bono, gathered at the UN to endorse the new Global Malaria Action Plan.

Kathy Willens/AP Photos

Conquering Malaria Once and For All

An international partnership today unveiled an ambitious long-term plan to rapidly reduce malaria deaths and perhaps eventually eradicate the disease, which kills some 1 million people a year, mostly children in Africa. The Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership, which unites governments, nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, and private groups, says its new Global Malaria Action Plan (GMAP) could save 4.2 million lives by 2015. But it will require massive increases in funding from donor agencies, countries, and the private and nonprofit sectors--some $6.2 billion by 2010, And that's just for starters.

At the high-powered rollout at United Nations headquarters in New York City, headlined by U2 rocker Bono and attended by UN leaders and several heads of state, a number of donors pledged more than $3 billion. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, for instance, announced that it will award $1.62 billion in new grants over the next 2 years to help poor countries fight malaria. The World Bank committed $1.1 billion to expand its Malaria Booster Program. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation added $168 million to the pot, with which the Malaria Vaccine Initiative in Seattle, Washington, will aim to develop a new generation of malaria vaccines. The remaining money will have to come from other sources, according to the plan.

As a near-term target, GMAP wants to make sure an 8-year-old plan to halve malaria deaths from 2000 levels by 2010, which has made little progress so far, meets its goal. Then, it seeks to reduce deaths from malaria to near zero by 2015 by providing universal access to prevention and treatments. All this would be done by massively scaling up proven interventions such as long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, a generation of drugs called artemisinin-based combination therapies, and indoor residual spraying of insecticides. Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of the RBM Partnership, says recent successes in countries such as Ethiopia show such gains are possible, although they will be far more difficult to pull off in countries with dauntingly high malaria burdens such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Regina Rabinovich, head of infectious diseases at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, calls these goals "ambitious but achievable."

Existing tools won't suffice to stop malaria transmission in hard-hit geographic areas, much less eradicate the disease, experts concede. To develop radical new vaccines, drugs, and insecticides needed to reach those longer term goals, GMAP calls on the international community to come up with $750 million to $900 million a year for research. The Gates' contribution is the first installment.

Coll-Seck says GMAP reflects the contributions of more than 250 people from 60 institutions over the past year. "The plan gives a strong sense of where the community wants to go," agrees Carlos "Kent" Campbell of the Seattle-based health nonprofit PATH.

Campbell says the new plan could have "an enormous impact" in the fight against malaria but cautions that GMAP right now is "not a detailed work-plan in any sense of the word.” Whether this broad-stroke blueprint will actually achieve its goals depends on how it is fleshed out over the coming years--and whether donors and malaria-affected countries follow their words with actions.